What price liberty?

Henry Porter gives his account of Saturday's What price liberty? debate in Cornwall blogged on OurKingdom last week by organiser Jessica Mann.
Henry Porter
27 January 2010

Henry Porter gives his account of Saturday's What price liberty? debate in Cornwall blogged on OurKingdom last week by organiser Jessica Mann.

To sit next to a chief constable and hear him say he believes the traditions of liberty are more important than security is worth a lot, but that complies with my experience of senior police officers: they are often thoroughly alert, intelligent people who understand the needs of civil society, and the popular chief constable of Cornwall, Stephen Otter, is no exception.

We were taking part in What Price Liberty? at Truro and Penwith College in Cornwall, which was among the most impressive day-long discussions that I've attended. The sell-out confirmed another conviction of mine – that there's a great appetite for live events and intelligent public discussion, which is not being satisfied in the country.

We think of these events relying entirely on the performance of the speakers but of course it's the audience that makes it happen, and what was striking is the engagement and level of knowledge of the public in discussion, which defies the top-down, condescension of the political classes. I see no reason why the Cornish model, developed so effectively by the writer Jessica Mann and the literary agent Jane Turnbull after they attended the Convention on Modern Liberty in London last year, couldn't work elsewhere.

Their chief asset was the co-operation of Ellen Winser, the chair of Truro College, who put her full weight behind the discussion of liberty, giving the college's catering facilities, dining rooms and main auditorium for the day. College heads no doubt worry about their budgets these days, but I can't think of a better way of enriching local debate. I wish there was some kind of national system for matching speakers, passionate local organisers like Jessica and Jane with educational establishments, most of which are empty on Saturdays.

People need to talk about their worries and test the views of the speakers in a way that the web does not allow, especially in the run up to an election. How many public buildings are throwing open their doors for all-party debates and Question Time events? Imaginative programming and publicity could really help the election process. The atmosphere at Truro College on Saturday would certainly have impressed politicians and journalists who have fallen into the habit of thinking that the public is wood from the neck up.

As for the speeches, it was great privilege to sit back and listen to Ursula Owen, the former head of Index on Censorship about modern censorship, the historian Frederick Taylor on the laws passed in the Weimar republic that enabled Hitler's rise to power, which have a chilling familiarity to anyone who reads the newspapers in Britain, and Katharine Whitehorn being brilliantly funny about the surveillance society. I was struck by Oliver Baines, the founder member of Groundswell ("Good planets are hard to find"), who rather cheerily listed the disasters heading our way then articulated the danger to liberty when the food, population and energy crises hit. Chief Constable Otter was no liberal pushover but he made some very good points about people demanding security without lifting a finger themselves; he described a passive society that is content to barter over liberty for security.

Not much evidence of that in the Cornish capital. I really believe the organisers have found the model for encouraging debate as well as engagement with the big issues.

Cross-posted from Comment is Free.

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